Ruth Z. Deming
Sue Ann lay in bed waiting until everyone was asleep. She watched the reflections of cars and trucks across her ceiling, which looked to her like an amusement park at night. She knew her mother would be listening for her to get out of bed. Since she was a small child, she believed her mother never slept, so she learned how to get out of bed without being detected. Any loud sustained noise from outside – and there were plenty - and she would walk down the hall in her socks and nightgown – and then enter the door of Gramps’ bedroom.
At the first sound of the “R” bus purring down twelve-lane Roosevelt Boulevard, Sue Ann got out of bed, grabbed her little embroidered purse, and walked down the creaky hallway into his bedroom.
It smelled none too good since he got sick. In fact, she had to get used to the stench every time she walked into the room. The smell of a sick man. A dying man. She went over to his dresser and clicked off the sound monitor, looked out the window of their Philadelphia row house and saw old Mr. Sherman being pulled along by Romeo, his black dog with eyebrows just like a person’s.
“You asleep?” Sue Ann asked, as she curled up next to him.
“You know better,” said Gramps. “I never sleep. I just pretend to.”
“What hurts tonight?”
“What don’t hurt?” he said. “Still can’t figure out what I must’ve done wrong to carry all this misery inside one human body.”
Sue Ann suggested maybe it was the time when he told a persistent magazine solicitor to “bug off” and if he ever caught him at his door again, he’d punch his teeth in.
Gramps hazarded something like a laugh, though he never laughed anymore. “Did I really say that? What a jackass I was.”
The bed was big enough for the two of them. Gramps’ wife had died, going on four years now. Boy, did they ever miss her. Still could see her late at night with her teeth on the night table. Always knitting. Gramps lay under a furry green and white blanket she’d crocheted years ago. No, you couldn’t forget her even if you tried. Photos of her dancing with Gramps, cuddling with Sue Ann and her two younger brothers, and that wedding picture at Saint Alphonse Church, just down the street, with the huge silver cross on top.
How, Sue Ann wondered, can people change from so young to so old and then they actually fall dead and die. That’s what happened to Gram. Mama found her dead one day when she came home for lunch one day. Sure Gramma Annie was old and had white hair and brown spots on her hands and wore those shapeless housedresses but why did she have to die like that, slumped over on the kitchen floor.
Now it was Gramps’ turn. The thought of being in the house alone with her mother and two little brothers was more horrible than being chastised and dressed down at school by Sister Jeanette for looking out the window and daydreaming.
Gramps was terrified of the dark. “It’s worse now,” he told Sue Ann. “I’m scared of the real darkness. The darkness after I’m gone. I see myself floating endlessly in the dark night sky. For eternity. Seeing nothing. Seeing nobody, but just floating forever.”
His voice broke.
He had requested that his daughter Donna move the wooden cross with a sad-looking Jesus from the living room into his bedroom where he could see it across the room. It didn’t help much, but it was something.
“Do you suppose Gram is out there floating among the stars?” asked Sue Ann.
“Could be,” he said. “Never thought of that.”
Getting out of bed, Sue Ann yanked the Venetian blinds as high as they would go.
They lay in bed, staring out the window at the stars and the planets, the old man and his granddaughter. His staccato cough began. Sue Ann rolled over to watch his chest heaving and put her hand on it. Good thing she’d turned off the monitor or Mama would come running.
“Whiskey,” Gramps said, between coughs.
Sue Ann got out of bed and reached for Gramps’ flask inside the embroidered bag she’d bought on a school trip to the shrine of Saint Katherine Drexel.
She helped him take a few sips and then gave him a peppermint drop.
After Gramps retired with a nice pension from the Philadelphia Police Department, he became a regular at a neighboring Dunkin’ Donuts, where he liked telling detective stories to the other pensioners. He also spent time at Castle’s Tap Room, which like its name, was an old Victorian house with a bar on the first floor.
The last time he was there, he sat with his four buddies across from a mirror which reflected their aged faces. Even the bartender was getting up in years.
“What do you think?” Gramps asked the bartender and his four friends. “The cancer must’ve moved in after Annie died. It knows an opportunity when it sees one.”
Hank agreed. “Well, you know what happened to Charlie after his missus passed.”
“This is the part of life we thought would never come,” said Gramps. “But look at it. Clanging down the track full speed ahead.”
The men raised their mugs and sipped their beer.
“They say we need hobbies,” said Jack, who hadn’t a hair left on his head. “Keep busy, throw darts, play cards, write with your left hand, get out of the house and not just sit here crying over our beer.”
“Yeah, at my age,” said Hank, who wore an Army cap from his World War II years, “I’m supposed to be doing the cha-cha-cha on top of the counter.”
The laughter was polite, not raucous like in their younger years. They asked for more corn nuts.
That was the last time they saw their drinking buddy “Fritz” Graham – Gramps - at the Castle.
Sue Ann brushed his thin white hair off his forehead. “Mama’s gonna have to trim your bangs again,” she said.
“Let the undertaker do it. Won’t be long now.”
“Hush! Don’t talk that way,” said Sue Ann.
Sue Ann was the proud owner of a black Princess 9-speed bike that Gramps had bought her on her ninth birthday. Michael and Jeff wanted one, too, but Sue Ann told them they’d each get their turn, money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.
She kept the bike in the garage in a bike rack she’d found on trash day. On weekends she polished it with Dad’s chamois and hot sudsy water like he taught her. The bike had a small leather pouch on the back, in which to keep important things. She soon filled it with some of the treasures she’d find on her rides.
She never told anyone about her secret rides, least of all her mother who seemed to think it was her job to cross-examine her every time she came home.
“Go on, empty your pockets out,” said Mama. “I want to see what this child of mine has been up to.”
Looking down, Sue Ann took her acorns, pine cones and smooth pebbles out of her pockets, stuck it under her mother’s nose, and then went into her bedroom. Slamming the door, she carefully laid her treasures across her dresser. She smiled at herself in the mirror, fluffing up her short blond hair and thinking, “I can’t wait to wear pink lipstick.”
“Listen, you!” called Mama, who always had to get the last word in. “If I catch you sneaking out again, it’s right to the police station you go. This is for your own good, Sue Ann, your own good.”
Sure. The threat of the police station. What a laugh. They knew everyone there and Mama wasn’t going to embarrass what was left of the family. Sue Ann knew her mother and father took blows at one another – the television called it “domestic violence” - and the police would come screeching out at night.
Maybe a year earlier, just before Gramps got the cancer, her father had come home from work around dinner time and Mama began her yelling. Sue Ann always went straight into her room and held her ears but this time, something seemed different.
“That’s it! I’ve had it with you, Donna!” yelled her dad. “You aren’t fit to be married to anyone, you whining bitch!”
Her mother used to be a pretty woman, her dark brown hair swirling around her shoulders. Sue Ann would look at pictures of her – “Donna O’Grady” - in her high school yearbook. But motherhood made her mean. Untrusting. She was always tired when she came home from work as a bookkeeper at Beck’s Seafood Restaurant off Roosevelt Boulevard.
Sue Ann listened as her father, in his heavy work boots, went into the bedroom, opened drawers and slammed them shut, and then went into the hall bathroom, where she heard him fumbling around for his toothbrush.
He seemed like a man she didn’t know.
Without thinking, Sue Ann, in her jeans and sweatshirt, met him in the hallway.
He threw up his arms. “Can’t help it, kid. It’s too much for one working man. Lean on Gramps.”
He walked out the front door with his blue suitcase. Sue Ann ran after him, wanting to shout, “Take me along. I’ll be good. Take me along.”
She kept silent, mesmerized by her father’s movements.
His face was red with anger and streaked with dirt from his job as a railroad mechanic. He always showered when he came home. But now she saw him striding to his car parked down the street, an odd lone figure she had a hard time believing was her dad.
She went back to the house. She didn’t feel like riding her bike. The boys were playing down the basement and apparently heard nothing. She began lacing up her sneakers and went outside to walk. She counted on her feet to tell her where to go in this neighborhood where she knew everyone and every garbage can, manhole cover, stairway, rose bush, stone fence, who was looking out the window all day long, who had a baby, who had smelly cats.
Kids and the elderly were the wise ones in the neighborhood.
Walking, Sue Ann was oblivious to the sound of traffic on Roosevelt Boulevard, which had so many lanes and so many cars she still wasn’t officially allowed to cross it, though Gramps taught her three years ago when she was eight.
A large driveway appeared on the right. “Friends Hospital: Nation’s oldest psychiatric facility” read the cheerful blue sign as Sue Ann found herself skipping down the black driveway. She always felt happy in the woodsy environment of the hospital. Maybe some of the crazy people would be out strolling across the grounds. They were a quiet bunch, wearing their regular clothes, their heads bobbing up and down as they walked.
“Honey,” said a white-haired woman who, for a moment, reminded her of Gram. “Nice to see a child. I’m on a unit with only old people. Like myself. Gets tiresome.”
Sue Ann looked at the white identification bracelet on the woman’s wrist.
“Oh, yes,” said the woman. “We wear these bracelets as if we were tiny children and can’t remember our names. Promise me you’ll never lose your mind and go into a place like this.”
She laughed a merry laugh and took Sue Ann’s arm.
They walked together for a while. The hospital was famous for its azalea gardens which bloomed for three weeks every May. Out-of-town tourists arrived and paid money to see their luscious reds and whites and fuchsias, some nearly as high as a house.
Crazy people, thought Sue Ann, were quite similar to everyone else, except sometimes they said the unexpected, so unexpected it either made you jump or laugh out loud with the strangeness of it.
One young man with a dark beard had once said to her, “I see you’ve come down from your tree. About time.”
“Call me Dorothy,” said the white-haired woman. “I got nobody in the whole wide world. I got whoever I’m with. I guess you’re stuck with me now.”
Sue Ann looked up into her cloudy blue eyes.
“You walk good,” said Sue Ann. “Do you know the path at the end of the Scattergood Building?”
Holding each other, they walked past the old four-story Scattergood Building. It looked even more yellow in the sunshine.
“Sometimes,” ventured Sue Ann, “I wish I lived in a beautiful old building like that. My room would be on the top floor so I’d have a good view.”
The downhill path was littered with the leaves of early autumn. Sue Ann picked up a tiny red maple leaf and offered it to Dorothy, who stuck it in the pocket of her heavy black overcoat. A smooth shiny buckeye that looked like a miniature bowl with pudding inside lay glimmering in the weak sunshine of the woodsy path. Sue Ann rubbed it against her lips and stuck it in her pocket.
“You got nobody?” asked Sue Ann. “Where did they all go?”
“Honey, when you get to be eighty-one years old, everyone disappears. They either don’t like you because you’re old and complain about your arthritis and the pains in your belly or they’re dead and buried.”
“Whatcha doing in the asylum?” Sue Ann asked.
“Don’t be afraid of me, hun, but sometimes the voices come back. They’re mean and tell me to lay down on the railroad tracks or pour chlorine down my throat.”
Sue Ann put her hands over her ears.
“How awful! That sounds even worse than cancer.”
“It is, child. So I come here and they give me some medicine. Voices are plum gone now.”
“I’m eleven years old already,” said Sue Ann. “I sure hope I don’t hear voices when I get older.
A small creek glinted off to the side. They walked closer and saw leaves floating downstream, carried away like small boats. A wooden bench with a plaque dedicated to someone dead sat invitingly near the creek. Sue Ann tilted her head and listened to the singing of the creek. What if, she wondered, the sounds never left her head, like Dorothy’s voices? Again, she held her ears.
“What’s wrong, dear?” asked Dorothy.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
They turned around and walked back toward the main campus. Sue Ann said she’d visit Dorothy if she didn’t live too far away. In fact, she lived in a rooming house right there on the campus of Friends Hospital.
“You’ll see me again. I promise,” said Sue Ann as she squeezed Dorothy’s hand, turned around and walked home.
Gramps was nearing the end. His breathing became labored. A hospice nurse was called to the house. Mrs. Burnley was a corpulent older woman with thin legs and hair so thin you could see her pink scalp underneath. But nice as pie. Everyone liked her. Even Mama did.
One day Mrs. Burnley gathered the entire family around the dining room table, while Gramps lay in bed. The sound monitor was on the table and they all heard his breathing – it sounded like a drowning man trying to come up for air.
Mrs. Burnley had a cup of tea in front of her. The dinner of tuna melts and a salad with Russian dressing had been cleared away. Sue Ann sat with her arms on the kitchen table. Her little brothers sat back in their chairs with their eyes wide open. Michael drummed his fingers on the table, while Jeff sat perfectly still. Mama had tears in her eyes and was blowing her nose into a flowered handkerchief.
Mrs. Burnley explained that Gramps had only hours to live. “The morphine drip has dulled his pain,” she explained, “but he wants you all to say goodbye to him. For that, the drip had to be stopped.”
“What about Dad?” asked Sue Ann. “Wouldn’t he want to say goodbye?”
“I’ve called your father,” said Mama. “He’ll be here but he ain’t coming back to live with us.”
“Why don’t we go into the bedroom to say goodbye now,” said Mrs. Burnley, peering through her black glasses.
Everyone looked at one another. No one seemed to want to leave the table. Mrs. Burnley stood up and took the hands of Michael and Jeff and led them into the room, which had become as scary as a haunted graveyard.
Mama and Sue Ellen looked at one another.
“It’s your father, Mama,” said Sue Ann. “I’ll miss him so much.”
Sue Ann got up and walked over toward her mother.
“He liked that wooden cross of Jesus you put in his bedroom. It was a comfort to him.”
Mama began to sob. Tears ran down her cheeks. Sue Ann grabbed a paper napkin and dabbed the tears from Mama’s cheeks.
“I love you, Mama,” she said.
The front door opened and Daddy walked in. Sue Ann stood silently by her mother.
“He was a fighter,” said Daddy, as he went to the fridge and found one of his old beer cans inside. He took a seat next to Sue Ann, popped open the lid and took a long drink. And gave a huge sigh.
“Dad didn’t want to see a priest,” said Mama. “Said he’d had enough of religion. Just wants to see the family.”
Mrs. Burnley came out of the bedroom, holding hands with Michael and Jeffrey.
“Wasn’t that hard,” shrugged Michael, the older.
“Was, too!” said Jeff.
Sue Ann told them to sit down at the table.
“We want to go in the basement and play video games,” said Michael.
“You’ll sit down with the family now,” said Daddy. “This is a day you’ll never forget.” He patted Michael and Jeffrey on their heads and pulled out chairs for them.
One big happy family, thought Sue Ann. If only. If only.
“I’m ready,” said Sue Ann.
The bedroom was flooded with light. Sue Ann blinked her eyes. It seemed that Gramps had already gone to Heaven. He lay flat on his back in his beige pajamas, staring at nothing in particular. Was he dead or alive, she wondered.
“Hello darling,” he said, startling her with a voice that was surprisingly strong. “I’m at peace, I’m with God,” he said. “And soon I’ll see my Annie wife.”
Sue Ann took hold of his hands. She looked at the huge blue veins and his long yellowish fingernails and tried to memorize them. These are the hands of Gramps, she told herself. The hands were warm and curled around her smaller hands.
“Thank you for buying my bicycle, Gramps. And for being my one true pal.”
“Promise me you’ll be nice to your mother,” he said. “I know it ain’t easy.”
“I will, Gramps. I promise.”
They sat in silence a few minutes and looked at the light showing on the wooden cross of Jesus. It seemed as if this were the very day he was crucified.
“Is dying easy?”
Gramps chuckled. “One day you’ll know. And we’ll be together again.”
She hated to leave the bedroom but the others needed to say their goodbyes.
At last everyone gathered together around his bed. Mama, Daddy, Michael, Jeff and Sue Ann. Mrs. Burnley sat in a nearby chair watching as a nun might watch over her flock. The boys sat on the green and white knitted quilt that Gram had made and stared at what remained of their grandfather. Mama, Sue Ann and Daddy watched his chest go up and down, up and down, until it finally stopped. Mrs. Burnley got out of her chair and closed Gramps’ eyes.
“A good death,” she said.
Sue Ann let herself out the front door. There was Daddy’s car parked on the street as if he had never left. Sue Ann knew where she was going. She began skipping down the sidewalk, careful not to step on any cracks, or the places on the sidewalk where tree roots catapulted the sidewalk up like a ramp. She was going to find Gramps and say hello to him.
Looking to the left, she stared at the traffic light on Roosevelt Boulevard. When it turned red, she crossed the first lane of the highway. She watched as the cars stood obediently behind her. Then she crossed into the center lane when the light turned red. There they were –SEPTA buses, with smelly fumes coming from their behinds, like farts from humans; huge vans carrying lots of people; pick-up trucks like Daddy’s friends had and smaller cars like Mama and Gramps had.
If you follow the rules, she thought, you can go places.
Finally she was there. At her tree. A maple tree shaped like a huge red lollipop. Autumn leaves were heaped on the grass, beautiful orange ones, red ones, and dead ones she stepped on to hear the crispy crunch of them.
Gramps would be coming by any minute now, she knew. Any minute now and she would be ready for him.